One of the goals for our ride from Sarajevo to Zagreb was to visit as many spomeniks as we could. These are monuments found throughout former Yugoslavia dating primarily from the 1960’s-70’s. Encouraged by Tito’s government, local bodies commissioned these installations to honor the fight against fascism during WW2 (in Yugoslavia the National Liberation War). Partisan communist resistance fighters fought against Nazi and Nazi-supported fascists forces from Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The Spomeniks are often inscribed with the names of those lost. Too, the Spomeniks honor the lives of ethnic Serbs, Roma, Jews, and Muslims that were murdered in their communities and in death camps.
But the sociocultural history of the spomeniks is more complicated than that. They were built during a time when achieving national unity for Yugoslavia was thought essential to its future. The spomeniks are modernist objects that would articulate this mythological union and serve as gathering sites to reinforce the story of a single people. As we know from the breakup of Yugoslavia and the tragic horrific wars there in the 1990’s, the unity narrative was at best a hopeful fiction that obscured the unresolved ethnic and national resentments and tensions of the region.
The spomeniks aim to be meaningful and to say something about lived events in a region, but are often so abstract that there is little chance of direct legibility. This can seem like a paradox, or at least a mismatch between the goals of being a monument and the modernist execution.
The apparent contradiction is resolved when we consider that meaningfulness always resides on a scale of literal specificity and fluid abstraction. A realist drawing or a literal sculpture brings to memory or imagination a sliver of time and the associated thoughts come in a cascade, batted by mood and belief and attention but orbiting closely around the initial concepts. We’re used to monuments functioning in this way, as we all understand straightforward, depictive meaning.
But saying something literally carries with it the danger of constraining our imaginations by insisting on particular concepts for history. The concepts invoked by looking at a literal monument are meaningful in their difficult-to-mistake framework, and they serve their purpose by defining the space of thoughts that one should have when looking at them. If a monument to anti-fascist resistance fighters depicts men with guns in a crossfire, that tells us something explicit and such a spomenik may be celebrated for its clarity. Yet it also functions to reinforce the idea that resistance is solely about bullets, and that the society worth preserving finds unity only in its conflicts.
Many of the modernist spomeniks of former Yugoslavia defy and resist this literal presentation in that they exhibit a level of abstraction that eludes a direct statement of a message. What is gained is a liberation of the thoughts one is encouraged and permitted to have in their presence. The monuments can’t, of course, be utterly opaque and without a power to say. Notably they speak about significance itself—they say, “something so important happened here that human beings went to great effort to mark that moment.” So it’s relevant that the spomeniks are sculptural and architectural. The artistic component evokes our humanity. No matter how natural the form of a spomenik, in its artistic qualities it says it is human made for the purpose of significance.
They also say their significance through their material properties like size and shape, and by their composition. Concrete and stainless steel are doubly perfect: They are moldable into forms that are as limitless as artistic imagination. And they are also, by the second half of the 20th century, material both modern and ordinary. Spomeniks take the mundane and lift it past its daily expression and meaning.
Many people remark on how alien the spomeniks appear, and this reaction has been criticized as the tendency to exoticize Yugoslavia. What seems to me correct is that they are alien from ordinary life while also having been achieved by very specific intentions of humankind. Not literally alien, then, as in being made by extraterrestrials, but alien to the mundane and to the ordinary course of things that lead to division. Thus, the spomeniks realize the universalism and history in common that was to be at the center of socialism in Yugoslavia, while still retaining the particularity of region and place through form.
When one looks at the spomeniks, they evoke thoughts about striving and dignity without specifying which thoughts one should have and without corralling those thoughts into pens defined by bullets and bloodshed. They are statements of the possibilities of courage and resolution. Our thoughts aren’t hijacked by a singular lament that people fought here, people died here. As anguished and true as that is, the spomeniks wish to go beyond that message.
The Spomeniks of former Yugoslavia are future thinking, political, and mnemonic. They are notable in how their materiality achieves spirituality. To me they have a powerful beauty and they continue to speak and be relevant—not least of all in their anti-fascist commemoration—even as they decay and are in many cases neglected.
Niebyl, Donald (2018) Spomenik Monument Database. London: Fuel Publishing. Includes very nice map.
Hatherley, Owen (2016) “Concrete Clickbait: next time you share a spomenik photo, think about what it means.”
Weiss, Srdjan Jovanovic (2018) “Socialist Architecture: The Reappearing Act.”